Tackling a growing crisis: food insecurity in the U.S.

Jeffrey Parkinson / USAF

Food insecurity has increased dramatically in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic.  Defined as a lack of reliable access to sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food, this measure helps assess the risk of hunger. 

The past 10 months of economic challenges brought on by the pandemic have led to a surge in the need for food. 

In Minnesota, there are more families in line at the state’s 350 food pantries now than there were during the 2008 recession. Feeding America, the nation’s largest anti-hunger organization, reports that one in six Americans now need help in order to get enough food to eat. 

With meal programs provided by schools and daycares having become unreliable, the number of hungry children has increased significantly. Food insecurity in households with children has more than tripled since the beginning of the pandemic.   

Nearly 24 million households—including 12.5 million households with children—reported food insecurity during the period of January 6-18. This number reflects a slight decline over December numbers, which coincides with the release of direct stimulus payments and additional economic aid from the pandemic relief package passed in December. 

While the number of Americans going hungry is still far too high, the recent decline suggests that the direct economic aid passed at the end of the year has had an immediate impact on improving people’s lives. 

The policies of the new Biden administration and that administration’s ability to work with Congress have the potential to tangibly and significantly improve the quality of life for the economically vulnerable.  

Knowing this, President Joe Biden has focused some of his early executive orders on addressing the current economic crisis. In an executive order on January 22, President Biden encouraged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to take action in three specific areas that would significantly target the 12 million children suffering from food insecurity. 

The order calls on the USDA to expand three key food assistance programs: Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Thrifty Food Plan.

P-EBT, which was passed in March 2020, provides support to families with school-aged children who receive free or reduced lunch benefits. The pandemic-led shift to remote learning resulted in families having to provide weekday meals, increasing their expenses. The president is asking the USDA to increase P-EBT benefits by 15%; a move that would allow low-income families to purchase more and better quality food. 

SNAP provides assistance to the lowest-income households. During the pandemic, benefits have been increased by 15%, however, some of the lowest-income households do not qualify for these increased benefits. Biden’s order asks the USDA to expand the eligibility guidelines for the increased benefits. If this occurs, an estimated 12 million additional people would receive more assistance. 

Biden’s order also asks that the USDA revise its Thrifty Food Plan. The plan helps calculate SNAP benefits. The requested revision would update the plan to reflect the current cost of nutritious food. 

As the economic hardship of the coronavirus pandemic has deepened, hunger has become a more widespread issue. Programs such as SNAP are targeted to assist those with the lowest incomes, however, the ability to afford food has become an issue for additional income groups, increasing the need for more aid and more creative solutions to tackle the growing hunger crisis.    

Food pantries often play a role with helping those not eligible for SNAP. Across the country demand for assistance has increased by 150% or more in many areas. Food pantries are calling for additional aid for USDA commodity programs to help ensure that they can meet the demand for food assistance in their communities.   

Other policy initiatives targeting food insecurity include the re-introduction of the FEMA Empowering Essential Deliveries (FEED) Act to the current Congress. This bill would allow the federal government to pay up to 100% of the costs for states and localities to partner with restaurants and nonprofits to prepare nutritious meals for vulnerable populations such as seniors and underprivileged children. 

In addition to providing food to those in need, the partnerships formed would support small businesses and farmers during the ongoing pandemic, also providing jobs in sectors that have been hard hit.

The policy proposals and executive orders announced in recent days are an important start.  We’re going to continue to need the combination of federal, state, and local aid, as well as creative solutions such as the proposed public-private partnerships of the FEED Act and other community-level supports if we’re going to ensure people have the food they need.